Renewable heat – a new approach by the UK government

For years I have argued that the United Kingdom has an electricity policy, rather than an energy policy, but things are changing. The newly formed Department for Energy & Climate Change (who call themselves DECC) now have a director of heat who is charged with the problem of providing  a large contribution the UK’s emission targets from renewable heat, which the European Union has been forcing on a fairly unwilling United Kingdom.

Of course, having a director of renewable heat pursuing a clear and separate path for heat renewable energy rather than lumping heat and power together will provide focus and expertise on renewable heat.

I heard the new director, Mr Hergen Haye, speak at the Solar Trade Association’s seminar at Woburn Abbey yesterday. He spoke well and lucidly and seems to be aware of the fundamental issues and problems that have to be solved if we are to get the renewable heat technologies making their contribution to the fight against climate change.

It was heartening to see that many of the points that I have been making for the past seven years are now accepted by government officials.

Mr Haye made one very important point and several small but also important points. The big point is that the government wants to see seven and a half million UK homes with solar systems in the next twelve years. Considering that there are fewer than 90,000 homes with solar systems, this is a challenge, but one that I have no doubt the solar industry can rise to in the future, provided the government sets and adheres to a stable policy within which the industry can grow and attract the necessary investment to finance its growth.

There will be a renewable heat incentive, (RHI) but this is probably a year from being in operation. There seems no doubt that the RHI will only work if the incentive is carbon based; the predicted savings of solar systems in emission terms is easy to establish, measurable and easy to estimate for small systems. The alternative of an incentive set at a level equivalent to present complex grants will not have any effect in stimulating the market for solar thermal.

Mr Haye spoke mainly about solar water heating; the solar companies like Genersys must do more to educate people that solar thermal technology is not just about water heating, but also solar can make a viable contribution to renewable space heating. Incentives that encourage this will enable the UK to reach its renewable heat targets more quickly and more cost effectively.

It was good to hear from Mr Haye that the government will not encourage residential biomass in cities; this is clearly a nonsense in terms of sustainability, emissions and air quality. It looks like the days of developers meeting the Merton Rule by installing a biomass boiler and a “back up” gas boiler are ending.

Mr Haye is working on how the mechanism for incentivising renewable heat will work. Clearly the incentive funding will be paid by domestic consumers, as an add on to their energy bills, rather like the present electricity based renewable obligation, which adds around £40 to the average house hold bill.

But the fact that the energy suppliers have collected this money does not mean that they are the best people to dispose of it. In fact, making them do this has three problems:-

1)    They have a conflict of interest because their core business is to sell energy, not to prevent people from using it

2)    They do not have the necessary expertise

3)    They probably will go for low cost and poor quality products which will not work well and which will not last long.

They key to any new incentive will be to enable it to be easily and cheaply accessible.

I suspect that solar thermal will provide a much greater contribution to meeting the renewables target than the government imagines. I think that the various problems is growing energy from food and from biomass, which has unintended consequences on food prices and air quality will become more apparent as we learn more about them. This will create greater emphasis on renewable heat from solar panels, which will have to bear an increasing large share of the UK’s renewable energy.

That means that we will, by 2020, see not just two or three panels solar systems on roofs, but many more homes with ten or twelve panels providing good heating and cooling support. In 2020 roofs will look very different from they way they look today.


9 Responses

  1. Ooooo Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ….oooo sorry, can’t , can’t, hee, can’t breathe – ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha…

    Oh. Right – where was I before I split coffee all over my keyboard?

    Oh yes – the thought of my lovely wam house on the night of New Year’s Eve, with snow covering not only the ground, but also glistening on my glass of my twelve shiny new solar panels I got for Christmas under the light of the moon.

    Yeah right.

    A Dickensian scene, right down to the shivering children huddled over a candle.

  2. Strange comment Mr Audley. Never mind, one day you’ll grasp the idea, and then perhaps Santa will hitch his reindeer to your heat pipe.
    My very best wishes.

    Robert Kyriakides

  3. I picked up a newspaper today with the frontpage heaadline “Energy Crisis Action Needed” a letter article to a newspaper “Mature Times, October 2008″ on page 19 entitled”Madern machines won’t was” about an elederly couple who having bought a new washing machine with only a cold pipe found that despite having solar thermal panels on their roof they could not without modification use the heat from solar thermal panels to wash their clothes it I know that whirlpool washers only have one water input pipe thus they use electricity toheat the water from cold to the required temperature.
    They are fortunate to have solar thermal but do need to install a mixer valve to pre-set a warmer temperature to feed into the washing machine if it will work with warmer water coming in!
    The letters page has an email address for corespondence;

    I think that finacing for kitting out buildings with retro fit insualation panels on internal/or external walls and renewable energy for heating, as times are hard in the winter so an overall balance of fuels is needed over the whole year not just extra money in the winter.
    I am thinking that most elederly people will have a hard choice of turn the heating down and freeze or keep it on and face huge gas or electricity bills and starve life threatening either way.
    Government backed financing of solar thermal for elderly/disabled lower income people would help instead of handouts to buy more junk-fuel!(hydrocarbons) handouts well they just increase the national debt and increase importaion of fuel, better to have a debt that is for an investment to reduce fuel consumption into the future.
    ‘Student Loan Company’ is an example so why not have the ‘Renewable Fuel Loan Company’, the current grant system is shamefull because it forces people to choose from a list of companies and so they have a narrowed down choice of supplier, most charge excessive labor rates and maybe overc harge for equipment as well. This is not sustainable.

  4. Your company, and by extensions your entirely biased blog, is taking my tax money in subsidies by effectively distorting the usefulness of solar power. Twelve solar panels per house will not produce four times as much power as three panels, in midwinter with snow on the ground at UK latitudes. That’s because 12 x zero is still zero.
    There’s no benefit to anyone except your company, which could not be making a profit without Government (my money) subsidy. The occupants of such a house will freeze, warmed only by the inner red glow of their green righteousness.

    Rather than blather with words, since presumably you are an expert on these panels, let’s have you publish some figures about average daily output of your panels during an English January. (And for laughs, let’s have the average nightly output as well, when it’s at its coldest)

  5. Mr Audley

    You have several misunderstandings.
    1. Solar thermal energy is not a sole source of energy but needs to be backed up. However many panels you install and virtually wherever you live you need back up from a fossil fuel based source or there will be times when you run out of heat.
    2. Solar energy that creates heat can be stored. Systems are designed to have several days worth of storage so that you can collect the energy when it is available – ibn day light, and use the energy when you need to. In a solar water heating system the energy is tored as hot water in the cylinder. In a soalr heating system the energy is stored in a thermal store – which is like a larger version of a cylinder.
    3. Of course you get much less energy in winter with short daylight hours and a lower sun on the horizon. No one hides these facts – all solar thermal companies make it plain that this happens.There will be some January days when you get virtually no solar energy. there will be other January days when you get around 50% of the energy you need. Overall the January solar fraction for water heating may be as low as 15-20%, but you will have higher fractions as days get longer, with many people getting 100% for six months of the year.
    4. Night output is non existent, but you have to store the energy, as I explained before.
    I hope that this corrects your misunderstandings and if you can see any inaccuracies in any of my posts I would welcome you to draw them to my attention.
    5. At present government money – I agree your money and mine – does not go into thermal solar subsidies except to the extent of about £1 million each year. The point about solar is to prevent carbon emissions and provide some energy independence for the UK. People that invest in soalr are saving all of us money in the long run, as they slow down the rate of climate change and make everyone’s lives healthy by avoiding some emissions.
    6. No renewable energy is a 100% solution.

    Robert Kyriakides

  6. Mr Audley
    It is clear that you do not understand how a solar system works for providing space heating by your comments, unfortunately it is people with your naivety that has held the UK back on moving forward with new technologies, a solar solution for space heating works well in Germany, their winter’s are much harsher than ours, so why do you think it would not work in the UK, as Robert has pointed out, the solar energy is captured in large buffer tanks during daylight hours, this stored energy can then be used for the heating of your home

  7. Light is a quanta of energy and it is obvious that in the Winter there is less daylight here in the UK but knowing that light is a form of energy that can be captured there is still light energy in the Winter but more in the summer.

  8. It is useful to mention solar storage when talking about increasing the area of ST panels to avoid confusion over whether this will be wasted heat for supplying hot water needs only. Likewise many articles do not make a distinction between solar thermal and solar photovoltaic, leading to many disounting solar thermal because of misunderstanding payback periods which relate to PV only.
    Storage of solar heat has great potential for the future but it is also important to stress that the most cost-effective way of doing this is to follow the energy hierarchy of built fabric improvements first (insulation) to reduce the heat demand load before investing in larger than necessary expensive systems that have a shorter lifespan than building fabric. Passivhaus has a lot to teach us on this.

  9. Gina, absolutely, insulation is very important, of that there is no doubt, but to reduce the use of fossil fuel to heat the home, thermal solar is the best solution.

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